Reflections on the Vimy Centennial

By Olive Nugent

In this year, the anniversary of both the Battle of Vimy Ridge and the founding of Canada itself, a number of scholars and columnists have grappled with the status of the battle as the site of our country’s coming of age. Many have felt compelled to re-evaluate its almost mythical place in Canadian history as a great unifier, an interpretation some have called dismissive of the anti-war French Canadian perspective, reopening an age-old debate on the nature and origins of our national identity, such as it is.

Such lofty considerations weren’t on my mind as I boarded the plane to Europe with two dozen fellow students in April to attend the centenary commemorations at Vimy Ridge. As a student of history, I was aware of and drawn by the significance of the event we were commemorating, but military history has never been my particular interest; the Rijksmuseum and the Louvre held as much appeal for me as the “Beaches and Battlefields” advertised by the tour company. On the other hand, actually visiting the sites where Vimy, as well as other battles from both world wars, were fought, I hoped might help ground the myth for me and give the war a more real and human face.

The day itself was certainly unforgettable. Over 25,000 Canadians had made the five-thousand kilometre journey, on their own dime, to participate, and the atmosphere was at once solemn and buzzing as the crowd was herded behind metal fences to await the start of the ceremony. Veterans traded military records and war stories, while descendants of Vimy vets, clutching grainy pictures of their relatives, chatted with visiting students and history buffs. There was great fanfare as the Prime Minister Trudeau, President Hollande, and members of the royal family began to arrive. Once they’d made their way towards the towering monument and everyone had settled down, the ceremony began in earnest.

Eight months on, the speeches and performances are a blur, perhaps in part because we were far off in the field, squinting to see the speakers on a jumbotron. I remember finding them moving and earnest, their tone reverent, but not glorifying; in their remembrance of the sacrifice of the over ten thousand Canadian dead and wounded, it was not lost on them that the monument on which they stood, with its figure’s broken sword, was one to peace and loss, rather than to war.

Above all, I was in awe of the scale of this communal act of remembrance and very grateful that I got to be a part of it. But frankly, it was just that, the sheer size of the whole event, that stood in the way of the kind of perspective I had hoped to acquire there. I found it difficult to see a muddy battlefield where men fought and died where a mass of 25,000 restless, sunburned travellers were straining to get a glimpse of Trudeau or Prince Harry. The whole enterprise was so overwhelming that I felt too drained and dazed to fully appreciate the weight of what was being commemorated. The hoped-for moment of clarity and insight never came, and I left feeling as though I had squandered an opportunity, without being sure what more I could have done.

This made me all the more grateful that our tour of significant military sites was so comprehensive. The following day, we travelled to the Beaumont- Hamel Newfoundland Memorial, the site of a devastating battle that saw only 68 of the 780 Newfoundland men deployed turn up for roll call the next day. The tour was deeply informative and impeccably executed by our Canadian guide, and taking in the unnaturally pockmarked landscape and appreciating just how thankless the men’s crawl through the mud was deeply jarring. When, a few days later, we drove to Normandy and walked along Juno Beach, the sheer size of that patch of coast, how small I felt in the face of the looming cliffs, made me wonder whether those who landed there felt like tiny cogs in an enormous, decisive machine, or if each individual struggle up the beach was entirely one’s own. The cemeteries we stopped by, with their endless rows of graves belonging to men barely older than my classmates, had a sort of hushed beauty to them, as if nature had quietened in respect. All of these experiences were profoundly affecting, and ironically, given the impetus for the whole trip, more rewarding for me than the Vimy commemorations themselves.

Some normal, quiet day, I want to go back to Vimy Ridge and seek out that kind of experience there. To have been there for the 100th anniversary was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that I’m grateful to have had. But as an environment for learning and cultivation of empathy, or even reflection on Vimy’s real cultural importance, it fell short of my hopes. I would agree that no single battle, no matter how significant, can be the making of a whole nation, let alone one as diverse as Canada. But regardless, the individual struggle of each man who fought and died there, independent of romantic myth, is worthy of its own contemplation – preferably well away from the crowd.